(Visitors must wear face coverings when entering the building and while indoors.)
Finishing her three-year long residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts with a bang, Sylvie Fortin, the renowned Canadian independent curator, presents I don’t know you like that: The Bodywork of Hospitality. As you can glean from the title, human bodies and how they relate to themselves, each other and the wider world are a major point of interest for this exhibition.
Highly ambitious in its scope, the selected exhibiting artists have national and global influence, all the way from Mexico to Morocco, France to Argentina. These 18 artists include Ingrid Bachmann, Crystal Z Campbell, Jean-Charles de Quillacq, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Stephanie Dinkins, Celina Eceiza, Adham Faramawy, Mounir Fatmi, Flis Holland, Oliver Husain, Rodney McMillian, Bridget Moser, Pedro Neves Marques, Berenice Olmedo, Kerstin Schroedinger, Jenna Sutela, Ana Torfs and Francis Upritchard.
A visit to this exhibition is a must before it comes down in late March not only for this long list of international artists, but as it is the strongest group show seen in Omaha since Bemis’s inaugural curator-in-residence Risa Puleo’ curated Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly in 2017.
Within the four galleries, Fortin’s major area of research is investigated primarily through the medical transplant, something we take for granted in the 21st century. What we may be unaware is how storied the history of the transplant is, which reaches as far back as hundreds of years ago.
The first gallery particularly emphasizes the transplant with three very strong works: Mexican Berenice Olmedo’s uncanny sculptures made of prosthetics, Mounir Fatmi’s digitally manipulated photographs of transplants, and American Crystal Z Campbell’s laser etched glass embedded with Henrietta Lack’s immortal cells, better known as HeLa cells. Here, the legacies of racism and how they impact out contemporary medical landscape is investigated and critiqued.
Fatmi’s and Campbell’s work, in particular, both have a strong relationship to each other. In Fatmi’s “The Blinding Light 05, The Miracle of the Black Leg,” a religious scene borrowed from an alterpiece by the proto-Renaissance artist Fra Angelico is superimposed with images of a contemporary medical transplant. It’s ghostly, and on first inspection, one scene is hard to distinguish from another.
“It is believed to be the earliest depiction of a transplant in art, and you have the two saints enacting the miracle. You see the black leg that has just been transplanted.” Fortin said when interviewed. “What struck me with my research was that the very first depiction of a transplant is already racialized and extractive, so it positions the white body as recipient and the black body as superhuman, able to donate life and to grant life, but also totally disposable.”
Simply put, the historical entanglement between medicine and racism is ongoing.
Renaissance Scholar Dr. Amy Morris of the University of Nebraska Omaha comments on this racializing aspect, sayinf, “They weren’t performing something during their life. They came back centuries later and then helped transplant this leg. Presumably if you could perform a miracle you could do anything, so why select a black leg as opposed to a white leg? According to legend, it was the leg of a Moore who had died. It wasn’t vicious that they took the leg, but still, what authority did they have to remove the leg of that person, the dead Moore versus someone else?”
This is particularly insidious when we take the account the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who suffered from cervical cancer. Without consent, her cancer cells were extracted and used for medical research because of their immortal properties. It’s as if she continues to live among us.
Campbell’s pieces, “Portrait of a Woman I” and “Portrait of a Woman II” are two 3-D Cut solid glass cubes depicting either a haunting portrait of Henrietta Lacks or a network of her cells.
“Henrietta Lacks’ cells, an African-American woman whose cells were taken without her consent, is credited with having biological material that led to cures for polio and tuberculosis alongside many scientific developments.” Campbells said. “Her identity was erased for many years, and she long went unrecognized despite millions of people benefiting from the research and billions made in biotech industries with her biological imprint.”
Considering both Fatmi’s and Campbell’s pieces are placed directly next to each other, the message is quite clear. The body of Henrietta Lacks was seen as a donor, something to grant life, yet expendable. And we’re all implicated in this narrative; of us living in the United States, who has not received their polio vaccine?
Whereas room one exposes the racist foundations of medicine, the second gallery takes on a significant corporeal turn, using the body as a metaphor for race, gender, and migration. One of the most fascinating works here is by Adham Faramawy, a London-based artist born in Dubai, of Egyptian descent.
The artist’s work, “Skin Flick,” presents a trippy experience with men (and one woman) rubbing creams on themselves and others and uses medicines and flowers as symbols. It also speaks to our (and I really mean “male’s” when I type this) own bodily insecurities of aging, libidinal impotence, masculinity, and the fear of death. Faramawy’s work is very sexual in an asexual way.
Quite literally, a horned narrator that becomes a host to multiple fungal infections says “Ageing feels like a betrayal;” “my body, sexuality, and aging are inextricably linked to drugs and supplements to ideas of disease;” “I wish I could change my body at will.”
“’Skin Flick is a personal work, it’s a way for me to explore my experiences of intimacy and desire as a queer, migrant body in a colonial European country,” Faramawy said when interviewed. “The phrase Skin Flick was offered with lightness of touch and with humour. I meant it as a double entendre, the skin flick as pornographic movie, the flick of the skin as a sensual gesture and sensation, with toxins, ointments, creams, bodily fluids, pepsi, soil, contaminants testing the body’s boundaries as a site of the political, a border and a boundary, a point of interface.”
One final highlight of this exhibition is an immersive installation titled “La lengua de los distraidos [The Distracted Language]” by the Argentinian fiber-artist Celina Eceiza. The artist draped fabric on walls similar to curtains, creating rooms a visitor is invited to walked through. Existing somewhere in the ethereal or cosmic real, Eceiza depicts highly-stylized figures with dyes and soft sculptures.
These are only some of the quite fascinating works by this roster of artists that covers topics like the AIDS crisis, infection, medical research, lynching, and the cyborg, among others. Visitors are offered a plethora of threads to take, while reminding you that you are an existing, functioning body.
I don’t know you like that: The Bodywork of Hospitality runs through March 20, 2022 at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, located on 724 South 12th Street, Omaha, NE 68102. Gallery hours are Wednesday, 11am-5pm, Thursday, 11am-9pm, Friday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. For more information, visit https://www.bemiscenter.org/.